Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717
At a time when many haikai poets wrote hundreds of verses during a single night’s linked-poetry session, Matsuo Bash’s lifetime accumulation of barely a thousand seventeen-syllable hokku is indicative of the seriousness with which he took his art. Constantly struggling with each of these verses, Bash established a standard of...
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- Critical Essays
At a time when many haikai poets wrote hundreds of verses during a single night’s linked-poetry session, Matsuo Bash’s lifetime accumulation of barely a thousand seventeen-syllable hokku is indicative of the seriousness with which he took his art. Constantly struggling with each of these verses, Bash established a standard of craftsmanship and profundity that would later lead to hokku’s independent status as haiku.
The hokku often singled out as Bash’s first masterpiece is his crow verse of 1681: “On a withered branch/ A crow settles itself down—/ Autumn evening.” The stark tableau of a black branch against the darkened sky is broken by the sudden movement of a crow alighting. Here, timelessness and the momentary meet, and as they merge, the wider and deeper cycle of nature’s seasonal pattern is revealed. The darkness of branch, crow, and autumn nightfall interpenetrate, suggesting the Japanese aesthetic qualities called wabi (poverty) and sabi (solitude).
What the poet has not said is as significant as his choice of theme. The traditional aristocratic themes of Japanese court poetry, the scented love notes, koto music, and tear-drenched sleeves of waka are absent. Bash reaches back to the themes and cadences of the great Tang Dynasty poets of China, Du Fu and Li Bo, to lend universality to his verse. The monochromes of the great Chan masters are suggested by the black branch and crow, and perhaps the hokku itself suggests the Chinese poetic topic, “shivering crow in leafless tree.” The merging of all in the mystery of darkness suggests Bash’s reading preferences: Daoism’s Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) and Japan’s poet-priests Saigy and Sgi. The rhythm and repetition of sounds, lost in English translation, witness Bash’s careful craftsmanship in the crow verse: kare (withered), karasu (crow), aki no kure (autumn evening).
One of Bash’s Edo disciples, Senka, compiled a haikai matching of verses on the subject “frog” in 1686, Kawazu awase (frog contest). Bash provided the opening verse, or hokku, the most famous of all his works: “An age-old pond—/ A frog leaps into it/ Splash goes the water.” The presence of kawazu (frog), a kigo (season word), tells the reader that it is spring. The poet sees the still surface of a murky pond, probably an ancient pond edged by rocks and reeds designed centuries earlier by some Zen priest as a setting for a temple. A sudden splash shatters the stillness of the pond, and in that disruption a new awareness of the eternal is sealed on the consciousness. Asian philosophy’s yin-yang complementarity is revealed in the relation of stillness to sound, and the Daoist theme of a void from which momentary forms of life emerge and to which they return is celebrated. The consummate demonstration of just how much can be suggested in a few words constitutes Bash’s principal contribution to the hokku and suggests the Asian “one-corner philosophy”: Sensitivity to the smallest creature or the briefest moment within the cycle of nature provides a gateway to the motion and meaning of the entire universe. In the words of Zen Buddhism, “The mountains, trees, and grasses are the Buddha.”
Zen and Daoism
Bash’s training in Zen Buddhist meditation and his donning the robes of a Buddhist priest for his travels might suggest that the key concept of Buddhism, sunyata (emptiness), would find expression in his verses. It is significant that many of Bash’s hokku focus not on a presence but rather on an “absence,” a creative emptiness that suggests “pure potentiality.” He writes of a skylark “clinging to nothing at all,” of Mount Fuji “disappearing in mist,” of flowers “without names,” and of “a road empty of travelers.” The Daoist void and Buddhist emptiness are expressed in the aesthetic quality Japanese call ygen (mysterious vagueness), a quality of the hokku akin to the vacant spaces in a Zen scroll painting.
In 1693, just a year before his death, Bash “shut his gate” for a time, refusing all visitors. When he opened the gate again to his disciples, he began teaching a further development of haikai poetry, the principle of karumi (lightness). Even close disciples had misgivings and uncertainties about this principle to which the poet devoted his final year. Moving beyond wabi, sabi, and ygen, Bash sought a return to some primal simplicity in the ordinariness of life, simplicity beyond both technical excellence and poetic response to the past. He wrote of a “sick wild duck/ falling in the cold of night,” of “salted fish” in a street market, of a “white-haired/ graveyard visit,” a “motionless cloud,” and “autumn chill.” The experience of eternity was no longer simply intensified by the momentary; for Bash, it had become incarnate in the unadorned ordinariness of life.
The art of haikai
Modern interest in Bash’s art has generally focused on the hokku. Bash himself, however, believed the art of haikai was to be found less in isolated verses than in cooperative effort of a like-minded school of poets involved in “sequence composition,” and apparently he felt his greatest achievements occurred in this area: “Among my disciples many are as gifted as I am in writing hokku. But this old man knows the true spirit of haikai.” The art of haikai, or haikai no renga, is so foreign to Western experience that appreciation of its merits and of Bash’s contribution is especially difficult.
The waka was the chief poetic form of the Japanese from prehistory through the thirteenth century. The special possession of the aristocracy at court, short waka called tanka were sometimes created by two persons, one composing the upper seventeen syllables and another responding with the lower fourteen. When tanka rules became too confining, some poets began to compose renga (linked verses) of a haikai (informal) or mushin (frivolous) sort. Renga soon became adopted by the court and developed its own ushin (serious) rules, and so by the sixteenth century a haikai no renga movement sought to democratize the form again.
Bash, an artist of haikai no renga, sought to keep the form open to creative contact with everyday life, yet sought also to transcend common wordplay and vulgarities. His cooperative poetic efforts with four Nagoya merchants in Fuyu no hi (a winter’s day) and with sixteen disciples in a hundred-verse sequence called Hatsu kaishi (First Manuscript Page), culminating in a series of thirty-six-link renku collected in Monkey’s Raincoat. Using the rules regarding season sequences and moon and flower verses with freedom yet sensitivity, he advocated linking alternate seventeen-syllable and fourteen-syllable verses through the principle of nioi (fragrance), a vague but effective sense of atmosphere and mood conveyed by one poet and verse to another.
“In the City”
A renku in thirty-six verses titled “Ichinaka wa” (“In the City”) appears in Monkey’s Raincoat. Its opening verse (hokku) is by the poet Bonch, who introduces the “heavy odor of things” in the city and uses the seasonal words “summer moon.” Bash responds with the answering verse (waki), describing voices in the night at “gate after gate.” They repeat, “It is hot, so hot.” From there, a third poet shifts the scene to a rice paddy, Bonch continues with a verse describing a farmer’s “smoked sardine” meal, and Bash adds a link that pictures himself as a visitor to this poor farm neighborhood, where “they don’t even recognize money.” Within the next half dozen verses, a young girl’s religious experience is described, the season shifts to winter, and Bash introduces an aged peasant who “can only suck the bones of fish.” Sounds and word associations linking one verse to another are so subtle that even experienced haikai poets disagree in their analysis, though not in their high evaluation of the renku.
Perhaps the greatest facet of Bash’s art, linked poetry written cooperatively through a shared “fragrance,” is largely closed to the Western reader, though a good renku translation and commentary may be of some aid. Those familiar with Western chamber music may detect similarities, as themes pass from one player to another, exciting changes in tempo and mood are introduced, and one instrument modulates to support the contribution of another.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Finally, it should be noted that some critics view neither the hokku nor the haikai no renga as the height of Bash’s art. They would view his travel journals, culminating in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as the epitome of his creative efforts.
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, widely regarded as one of the finest works in all Japanese literature, the pilgrim-poet seeks to mature his art by hiking to those sites of beauty and history that inspired Saigy and other poet-priests of the past. Taking arduous trails both to the inner country of Japan and the inner reaches of his own art, Bash weaves prose and poetry into a record of a pilgrimage of the Japanese spirit as it responds to the history and beauty of the homeland. The famous opening declares that “moon and sun are eternal travelers,” and bids the reader to join in the journey. Bash describes famous sites and views at Matsushima, Hiraizumi, and Kisagata, pausing to muse over ruined castles and ancient battlefields:
The summer grasses—For courageous warriorsThe aftermath of dreams.
In a land ruled by powerful military shoguns who had closed Japan to all outside contacts, such musings in the spirit of the great T’ang poets of China made this travel journal an act of courage and a proclamation that art cannot be confined by political borders. Allusions to Chinese poetry and philosophy, Japanese history and aesthetics, are woven together in such a complex tapestry that, once again, the Western reader is in need of a superior translation and a helpful commentary, but the treasures to be discovered are worth the effort.
Bash, the poet whose verses are loved by children yet challenge the best efforts of mature scholars, spent his life in pilgrimage for his art and died on the road. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he sums up the relevance of his wanderings in a few simple words, identifying his readers as pilgrims, too: “For each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”